OK, I just have to say it: it was odd that three of the four panelists on the Tennessee Williams Festival panel New Orleans Free People of Color were white. The garrulous playwright John Guare tried to steal the show and not in a good way, and managed to annoy mystery writer Barbara Hambly when she disagreed with him but wouldn’t stop talking long enough to let her say her piece. Guare put his hand on the back of her chair at some point and it was funny to see Hambly leaning away from him to the point of tipping over.
Guare is the author of a successful Broadway play A Free Man of Color, Hanbly has penned a dozen mysteries featuring the Creole private detective Benjamin January, and the panel was rounded out by Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America and Gregory Osborne, a child of the Creole diaspora to Los Angeles in the post-World War II period and an expert on the subject who manages the archives at the New Orleans public library.
Sharfstein and Osborne thankfully stole the show away from Guare. Sharfstein’s book grew out of a stint of volunteer work in South Africa, where he met a black woman who had been registered as Colored (of mixed race) by a census taken, who was a friend of the woman’s father. He recounted a fascinating tale of a couple prosecuted under South Carolina’s miscegenation laws, a charge from which they were exonerated after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it was impossible to determine if the woman’s grandfather had himself been pure black, which would have made her an octaroon and invalidated the marriage.
Hanbly said she switched from writing science fiction to mysteries because “I wanted to write a mystery novel about a free man of color, since I was in high school [and] a mystery is the best way to investigate a society because the character has a reason to be explaining” his milieu in the course of his work. Her central character views the state of antebellum blacks through the lens of color. When she spoke of the history of the gens de color, it was clear she has done her research over decades of writing about her character.
Osborne, who worked closely with historian of New Orleans Creoles Gwendolyn Hall, shared the details of his own life growing up in a Creole family in which his grandmother still spoke Creole French with her cousins, and a thumbnail history of the free people of color in Louisiana. Growing up “I knew I had deep roots here and my father would call himself Creole but I didn’t know what that meant,” he explained.
He is writing a book looking at several hundred interracial relationships, mostly in New Orleans and dating back as far as the uprising in San Domingue (Haiti). In the 18th and early 19th century, a white man could leave his inheritance to his Creole family if he had no friends or other family in Europe or New Orleans, but as the antebellum American authorities began to crack down and categorize all persons they declared legally black, extensive searches were made for relatives to deny these families their inheritances.
Guare began his play – a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – after a friend, the African-American director George Wolf, asked him to write a play about race. “Why me, an old white guy?” he asked, but never explained Wolf’s answer. Wolf wanted a play about the history of race in Louisiana and done as a Restoration comedy; the sexually charged comedy of manners with a collision of subjects and elaborate costumes explains why the show was a Broadway hit with a long run. The only criticism he heard was of his historically accurate depiction of a black man owning slaves. True to a restoration comedy, his protagonist has a hard time keeping his pants zipped in the presence of both white and women of color, which explains why a serious subject would manage a long Broadway run.
The panel managed a good thumbnail sketch of the history of free people of color, mostly through the contributions from Osborne and Hambly, with Sharfstein filling in the details of race and miscegenation from the Revolutionary War through the start of Jim Crow. And it is hard not to want to see the mounting of Guare’s play at Louisiana State University in the fall, if only to see how such a serious subject plays as a comedy of manners.
This article by local writer Mark Folse is reposted from his blog, Toulouse Street: Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans, for NolaVie.